Sunflowers have been around for a while and they’ve had quite the journey, beginning in their native North America and making their way to numerous countries around the world. But it’s only been a few centuries since humankind figured out how sunflower oil is made and began to exploit the plant for its oil. Over the years, plant breeders selected highly productive oil-bearing varieties to make sunflower oil as popular and easily accessible it is.
Today, sunflower oil is a popular vegetable oil, with applications including cooking and margarine production. Its by-products are used in biodiesel production and to make high-protein animal feed. It has a mild flavor and a high smoke point and is rich in the essential linoleic acid, Vitamin E, and Vitamin K; our trusty ol’ WebMD attests to it.
In this post, we’re taking a peek into sunflower oil’s journey, from the fields to your kitchen shelf. Particularly, we’re interested in the sunflower oil making process.
The short answer to the question of how sunflower oil is made? By pressing the seeds of the sunflower plant. Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? And it is, especially when you have specialized partners like Kumar by your side. But naturally, when carried out at an industrial scale, the sunflower oil making process has more steps and more complexity involved. Within a factory setting, the process begins with preparatory steps and culminates in bleaching and deodorizing – essentially, the refining process.
So, how is sunflower oil extracted? Before we get to that question, we have to take a look at the oilseed preparation. You can’t just push harvested sunflower seeds straight through an oil extraction machine. Sunflower seeds are carefully selected to ensure only high-quality seeds make it through to the extraction process. The selected seeds are washed and dried; then they are dehulled – this involves the removal of the outer layer, which is made easier by the fact that when breeding sunflowers for oil, agricultural experts select varieties which have a thinner hull and higher oil content. We, at Kumar, recommend a hull and seed separator for sunflower in order to separate meat powder and sticky meat from hulls; our machines are designed specifically for cotton seeds and sunflower seeds and allow only very minimal oil loss during this step.
Now we come to the most important question, to the process at the very centre of it all: how is sunflower oil extracted?
As you probably already know, plant-based oils can be extracted via an expeller press (i.e. mechanical extraction) or by solvent extraction. The former is a more traditional process – it produces a higher quality oil whose nutritional value remains intact; but this process gives a relatively low yield. Solvent extraction, on the other hand, produces a much higher yield of oil – absolutely essential to maximise resource use – but this comes at the cost of nutrient density. Of course, we want the best of both worlds when it comes to our sunflower oil making process. So ideally, a combination of mechanical extraction and extraction using solvents is the way to go.
In this combination process, expeller pressing (or mechanical extraction) comes first. The prepared seeds are fed through an oil expeller machine (also called an expeller press or expeller oil machine). With the application of pressure to the prepared seeds, the oil expeller removes about half or three-quarters of their oil content. This process leaves two products: one, high quality, nutrient-dense oil which is transferred to the oil refining process; two, the remaining compressed oilseeds, also referred to as oil cake, which have some oil content left over in them – as you might’ve guessed, these move on to the solvent extraction step.
In the case that there is a demand for virgin sunflower oil, mechanical extraction marks the end of the extraction process. But in a world in which resources are scare and demand is heavy, it is usually not feasible to leave any oil behind in the seeds. Which is where solvent extraction comes to the rescue.
Solvent extraction is the part of the sunflower oil making process in which almost every last drop of oil is extracted from the sunflower seeds. Hexane is the most widely used solvent for this. The process begins with the pouring of hexane over the leftover cake from expeller pressing. The hexane absorbs the oil as it passes through, resulting in an oil-solvent miscella as well as the seed residue, from both of which the hexane needs to be eliminated to get products safe for consumption. After desolventising, the hexane is just repurposed – so this process is quite resource efficient. The extracted oil, meanwhile, joins the expelled oil in the refinery. Not to forget about the remaining meal – this protein-rich residue is extremely useful in making animal feed.
The extracted sunflower oil is still crude. What happens in an oil refinery is an important part of how sunflower oil is made suitable for human consumption. Oil refining is a multi-stage process, with the steps involved varying greatly based on the oil in question. When it comes to sunflower oil, the steps that are critical in the production of clear, high quality, and safe edible oil are degumming, alkali neutralisation, bleaching, dewaxing, deodorisation, and an optional winterization process – each of these processes is explained in detail elsewhere on our blog and website.
So there you have it. That’s the sunflower oil making process. But if you’re looking to get into sunflower oil production commercially, this is only the very beginning of your learning journey. Achieving every step mentioned above depends on the quality of raw materials you use, the skill and attention to detail your workforce has, and most importantly, the equipment you rely on.
The machines that you choose (and there are a lot to choose – expeller presses, oil extractors, dehullers, deodorisers, and more) can make or break your oil extraction operation. So naturally, there are a number of factors you should keep in mind while assessing the equipment landscape as well. You want machines which do the job safely and efficiently, but what design features contribute to safety and efficiency?
For starters, equipment constructed with special steel alloys are durable, long-lasting and capable of withstanding any extreme temperatures and pressures that may arise while during the sunflower oil making process. Ideally, you should also look for machines with minimal wear and tear parts and specially treated components – this means that you will cut down significantly on repair and maintenance costs. An annual maintenance contract is critical, too. Overall, any equipment that takes a leaf out of the Kumar Metals book when it comes to durability and long service life is equipment worth investing in.
If you still have questions about how sunflower oil is made or what machines you need to get your operations up and running, reach out to us at Kumar for a chat.
Request a callback
Since 1939, Kumar has been delivering dependable process engineering solutions to the oils and fats industry. We're known for our robustly engineered, versatile, and operationally profitable plant and machinery. It's why customers all over the world depend on us to solve their processing challenges, big or small. If you'd like to know more about our solutions, please fill out the form below:
"*" indicates required fields